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How Mistakes Create Critical Business Stories That Build Resilience – The Story Compass Series: Knowledge Stories

The Oxford dictionary defines resilience in two ways:

  1. The capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
  2. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity


For us humans, the first is a good literal translation. The second is a wonderful metaphor for recovering quickly. And isn’t that exactly what we want to be able to do; spring back into shape when an experience threatens to stretch us to our limits or snap us in two? One of the ways we recover quickly or spring back is recognizing that while the experience might be painful, the lesson will be valuable.

We all know the advice, “Learn from your mistakes!” and it’s easy advice to give. What is harder is talking openly about those mistakes so you can learn from them along with everyone else in your business. Telling the story out loud to your team, your management, your colleagues, that can be intimidating because it shows a chink in your armour.

For many, showing that chink is the last thing they want to do at work. After all, these are the times when you didn’t get the result you wanted, when you tried something new and it blew up in your face, or when you simply weren’t at your best. Sweeping the whole incident under the carpet and moving on might feel like short term relief from disappointment, despair, or embarrassment but that strategy isn’t going to ensure the incident helps your business, service, product, or project grow and advance. Exposing it to the light of day will.

You just have to know how to tell the story. We call these Knowledge Stories and because they are a component of our Story Compass model, there is one thing that is demanded of them. That they end in hope. For the Knowledge Story, that means the story ends with the lesson that everyone can take away so they can do better next time. How could that not be good for your business or your project? And of course, it is.

In fact, we already know the value of Knowledge Stories. For a lot of us, we grew up hearing Knowledge Stories in the form of Aesop’s Fables. Remember the Hare and the Tortoise? The two run a race and the hare tears off, confident he’s got the tortoise beat. The tortoise meanders slowly behind, not concerned at all. Eventually, the hare gets tired and lays by the track for a rest.  Why not? He’s so far ahead, he’s practically won the race! Except, while he’s snoozing, the tortoise waddles past and by the time the hare realizes what’s happening, it’s too late. The tortoise has him beat. We can all relate to being the hasty hare and losing out in the end. It’s important we take a lesson from the tortoise. Slow and steady wins the race. But if Aesop had never told the story, the lesson would never have become as universal as it is.

This is what you want for your business. Your own “Lessons Learned” manual of Aesop-style fables that tell the true stories of what you were trying to do, what went wrong, and what universal lesson everyone can learn from it so you can all do better next time.

There is a knock-on benefit to telling these stories. Crafted properly, they have the power to change how you see the mistake. Is it worth the continuing disappointment and embarrassment? Does it only tell the story of something gone wrong? Was the outcome all bad?

There is a parable about a farmer who lost his horse. Neighbours come over to say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” The farmer replies, “Good or bad, hard to say.” Days later, the horse returns and brings with it seven wild horses. The neighbours come back, this time to say, “Oh! That’s so good!” The farmer simply replies, “Good or bad, hard to say.” The next day, the farmer’s son rides one of the wild horses. He’s thrown and breaks a leg. The neighbours say, “Oh, that’s terrible luck.” The farmer replies, “Good or bad, hard to say.” Eventually, officers come knocking on people’s doors, looking for men to draft for an army, and they see the farmer’s son and his leg, and they pass him by. And the neighbours say, “Oh! That’s great luck!” And the farmer replies, “Good or bad, hard to say.”

The moral here is, give it time. Maybe, in the end the bad thing that happened wasn’t such a bad thing after all. What I know, after working with clients on their stories for more than a decade, is that you can speed up that realization if you start telling the stories about the bad things that happened. Here’s an example.

A client came to me with a specific request. She was participating in a panel at an industry conference. The organizers wanted everyone on the panel to share stories from the first year of the pandemic. To illustrate how they faced challenges and adapted to change. She told me she couldn’t get through those stories without crying. Her 2020 had been tragic. But she didn’t want to say no.

After talking through her experiences, I helped her craft five stories using the The Story Compass model. She ended up with two Knowledge Stories, two Value Stories, and one Journey Story. The Story Compass demands one thing from the ending of a story: hope. A Knowledge Story ends with the lesson learned and how it can be used to do better next time. The Value Story ends with the treasure seized. The Journey Story ends with the elixir that you now share with your world.

For my client, it turned out that every difficulty she’d had, every challenge she’d faced, had led to one of these endings. A lesson learned, a treasure seized, or an elixir now shared. But this connection would never have been made if we hadn’t gone through the process of integrating her experiences and using The Story Compass model to structure the stories. None of the facts changed. The way she told them did. And because of that, these stories painted a very different picture of my client’s 2020.

We practiced the stories out loud. A lot. Finally, it was time for her to go to the conference and use them on the panel. She nailed them and she was happy with that performance. But something else about the process had a far more meaningful impact on her. She told me that only had she developed content for the panel presentation, but she had also developed a new perception of 2020. It wasn’t a year of tragedy. It was a year of triumph. That feeling of triumph gave her renewed confidence and enthusiasm for the year ahead. Instead of staying stuck in the difficulty – and feeling a strong negative emotion anytime she tried to talk about it – she recovered quickly. She sprang back. This is the definition of resilience.

Looking back on mistakes and failures, and crafting a story about them after they’ve happened will have this effect. It will have this effect on you and the team you work with. With renewed confidence, a greater sense of control over negative events, and a belief that they can overcome any challenge, a resilient team can only have a positive impact on the business’ success. Crafting Knowledge Stories lets your team know they can be stretched, they can be stressed, and they can be challenged because they can spring back and recover quickly. And those stories will help you know the same about you. That is a triumph.

Want to start crafting a Knowledge Story? Here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Start the story by giving us a setting; some context for what you were trying to do and why
  2. Next, tell us what went wrong. Be as specific and descriptive as possible without going into too much detail
  3. Tell us what you now realize you could have done differently to achieve a different outcome
  4. Last, reveal the lesson that can be learned by everyone and how it can be used in similar situations. If you can come up with a short “moral of the story” that rhymes or rolls off the tongue easily and quickly, even better. It will be remembered long after the story is done.

Now go out there and let life stretch you!

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